Liberation Psychology for the U.S. — Bruce Levine

From Z Magazine by Bruce E. Levine. (Permission to reprint from the author)

Liberation Psychology for the U.S. Are we too demoralized to protest?

The term “liberation psychology” was popularized by Ignacio Martin-Baró (1942-1989), the psychologist, priest, and activist who was assassinated in El Salvador by government troops. Martin-Baró focused on the oppression of his fellow Salvadorans, Central Americans, and Latin Americans. It is increasingly apparent that U.S. citizens need Martin-Baró’s insights along with their own special kind of liberation psychology.

Why, in the United States, when the majority of people oppose the taxpayer bailout of the financial industry and the military occupation in Iraq, are the streets not regularly occupied with large numbers of protesters? Given 47 million people in the U.S. without health insurance and many millions more who are underinsured or a job layoff away from losing their coverage, and given the current sellout by their elected officials to the insurance industry, why are there not millions, rather than thousands in Washington, DC protesting this betrayal?

In contrast to the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who risked their lives to protest their disputed 2009 presidential election, few in the United States took to the streets to protest their own disputed 2000 presidential election. The U.S. corporate media, which often fails to report many injustices, did not hide the non-democratic nature of the 2000 presidential election. It reported that Al Gore received, undisputedly, 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush. It reported that the Florida Supreme Court’s order for a recount of the disputed Florida vote was overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court in a politicized 5-4 decision, of which dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens remarked: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

When people become broken, they cannot act on truths about injustice or about how they have been victimized by the government-corporate partnership that can lead to shame about how they have allowed it. And shame, like fear, is one more psychological way we become even more broken.

U.S. citizens do not actively protest obvious injustices for the same reasons that people cannot leave their abusive spouses. The more we don’t act, the weaker we get. Ultimately, to deal with the painful humiliation over inaction in the face of an oppressor, we move to shutdown and escape with strategies such as depression, substance abuse, television, and other diversions, which further keep us from acting. This is the vicious cycle of all abuse syndromes.

Liberation psychology is quite different than the prevailing psychology that most U.S. mental health professionals practice—which is to modify, manipulate, and medicate “malcontents” so that they are not monkey wrenches for the industrial order. In addition to Martin-Baró’s insights, the U.S. needs its own version of liberation psychology in which we start by recognizing that the U.S. population has been broken, then understand how this has happened, and then find paths to regain morale, healing, wholeness, and strength.

Ignacio Martin-Baró’s Liberation Psychology

As a Jesuit priest, Martin-Baró embraced liberation theology in opposition to a theology that oppressed the poor. As a social psychologist, he believed that imported North American psychology also oppressed marginalized people and that what was necessary was a liberation psychology. Martin-Baró believed that much of the standard, prevailing psychology served the interests of the ruling class and promoted alienation of oppressed people. “Generally,” he said, “psychologists have tried to enter into the social process by way of the powers to be.” In his essay “Toward a Liberation Psychology” (Writings for a Liberation Psychology, 1994, eds. Adrianne Aron and Shawn Corne), Martin-Baró points out that, “What has happened to Latin American psychology is similar to North American psychology at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it ran so fast after scientific recognition and social status that it stumbled…. In order to get social position and rank, it negotiated how it would contribute to the needs of the established power structure.”

The prevailing psychology, according to Martin-Baró, is not politically neutral, but favors maintaining the status quo. Reducing human motivations to the maximization of pleasure fits neatly into the dominant culture. Martin-Baró astutely observed that most prevailing psychology schools of thought—be it psychoanalytic, behavioral, or biochemical—accept the maximization of pleasure as the motivating force for human behavior, ignoring other human motivations, including the need for fairness and social justice. Prevailing psychology’s focus on individualism, he wrote, “ends up reinforcing the existing structures, because it ignores the reality of social structures and reduces all structural problems to personal problems.” Martin-Baró also pointed out, echoing Lewis Mumford, that when knowledge is limited to verifiable, observable facts and events, we “become blind to the most important meanings of human existence.” Much of what makes us fully human and capable of overcoming injustices—including our courage and solidarity—cannot be reduced to simplistic, verifiable, objective variables.

Martin-Baró once quipped to a U.S. colleague, “In your country, it’s publish or perish. In ours, it’s publish and perish.” He was tragically prescient. On the night of November 16, 1989 on the campus of Universidad Centro-americana José Simeón Canas (UCA), Martin-Baró, together with Ignacio Ellacuria, Rector of UCA, four other fellow Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter were forced out to a courtyard and murdered by the U.S.-trained troops of the elite Atlacatl Battalion.

In contrast to Martin-Baró, U.S. American intellectual activists have a considerable degree of free speech and it requires no great heroism for U.S. citizens to hear them speak and discover truths. The U.S. corporate-government partnership is increasingly unafraid of its citizens hearing truths because it has increasing confidence that, even when social inequity is thrown in their faces, U.S. citizens are too broken to act on truths.

Shortly before the 2000 U.S. presidential election, millions saw a clip of George W. Bush joking to a wealthy group of people, “What a crowd tonight: the haves and the haves more. Some people call you the elite; I call you my base.” Yet, even with this kind of inflammatory remark, millions of U.S. citizens who came to despise Bush and his arrogance remained passive. Thus, the focus of U.S. liberation psychology need not be on U.S. citizens gaining consciousness of injustices, as many of these injustices are already in plain sight. Instead, U.S. liberation psychology must focus on how we can be made whole again, so as to regain strength to fight for ourselves and our communities.

How U.S. Americans Are Broken

The U.S. government-corporate partnership has used its share of guns and terror to break Native Americans, labor union organizers, and other dissidents and activists. But today, most U.S. Americans are broken by financial fears—legal debt—if we speak out against a powerful authority; and all kinds of other debt if we do not comply on the job. Young people are broken by college-loan debts and fear of having no health insurance. We are also broken by a corporate-government partnership that has rendered most of us out of control when it comes to the basic necessities of life, including our food supply. And, like many other people in the world, we are broken by socializing institutions that alienate us from our basic humanity. A few examples include:

Schools and universities: Do most schools teach young people to be action-oriented or to be passive? Do most schools teach young people that they can affect their surroundings or not to bother? Do schools provide examples of democratic institutions or authoritarian ones? A long list of school critics—from Henry David Thoreau to John Dewey, John Holt, Paul Goodman, Jonathan Kozol, Alfie Kohn, Ivan Illich, and John Taylor Gatto—have pointed out that a school is nothing less than a miniature society. What young people experience in schools is the chief means of creating our future society. Schools are routinely places where kids, through fear, learn to comply with authorities for whom they often have no respect and to regurgitate material they often find meaningless.

In The Night is Dark and I am Far Away From Home (1975), Jonathan Kozol focuses on how school breaks us from courageous actions through a series of disconnections: “The teacher informs us that it is our obligation to obey our orders and to channel our dissent into innocuous patterns of polite ‘discussion and investigation.'” Instead of direct action, Kozol explains how our schools, especially elitist institutions, teach us a kind of “inert concern”—that “caring,” in and of itself, without risking the consequences of actual action, is ethical.

Throughout the Vietnam War, U.S. citizens with only grade school educations more often saw the war as a mistake than did those with college educations. Today, U.S. colleges and universities have increasingly become places where young people are merely acquiring degree credentials—badges of compliance for corporate employers—in exchange for learning to accept bureaucratic domination and enslaving debt.

Mental Health Institutions: Aldous Huxley predicted, “And it seems to me perfectly in the cards that there will be within the next generation or so a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude.” Today, increasing numbers of people in the U.S. who do not comply with authority are being diagnosed with mental illnesses and medicated with psychiatric drugs that make them care less about their boredom, resentments, and other negative emotions, thus rendering them more compliant and manageable.

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is an increasingly popular diagnosis for children and teenagers. The official symptoms of ODD include, “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules,” and “often argues with adults.” An even more common reaction to oppressive authorities than the overt defiance of ODD is some type of passive defiance—for example, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Studies show that virtually all children diagnosed with ADHD will pay attention to activities that they actually enjoy or that they have chosen. In other words, when ADHD-labeled kids are having a good time and in control, the “disease” goes away.

Television: In his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978), Jerry Mander (after reviewing totalitarian critics such as George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Jacques Ellul, and Ivan Illich) compiled a list of the “Eight Ideal Conditions for the Flowering of Autocracy.” Television, Mander claimed, helps create all eight conditions for breaking a population: (1) occupies people so that they don’t know themselves—and what a human being is; (2) separates people from one another; (3) creates sensory deprivation; (4) occupies the mind and fills the brain with prearranged experience and thought; (5) encourages drug use to dampen dissatisfaction (while TV itself produces a drug-like effect, in 1997 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration compounded this by relaxing the rules of prescription-drug advertising); (6) centralizes knowledge and information; (7) eliminates or “museumizes” other cultures to eliminate comparisons; and (8) redefines happiness and the meaning of life.

Consumerism: The primary societal role of U.S. Americans is no longer that of “citizen,” but that of “consumer.” Consumerism breaks people by devaluing human connectedness, socializing self-absorption, obliterating self-reliance, alienating people from normal human emotional reactions, and by selling the idea that purchased products—not themselves and their community—are their salvation.

A Liberation Psychology for the U.S.

Mental health professionals—at least those who have not rebelled against their professional socialization—are the last people I would turn to for help in remobilizing a demoralized population. They, for the most part, are impotent in the craft of remobilizing the demoralized because they lack the most important attributes necessary for the craft. Most mental health professionals are not risk takers and they have little faith. The craft of remobilizing demoralized people is about distracting the immobilized from their vicious cycle of pain, shut down, immobilization, and shame over immobilization. For that distraction to be distracting enough, it often must be a little silly, funny, crazy, or even outrageous.

It is my experience that people who are not mental health professionals often know more about remobilizing the demoralized than mental health professionals. Rather than any psychology textbook, the craft of remobilizing can best be learned through the lives of people who are accomplished at it. In Lincoln’s Melancholy (2005), Joshua Wolf Shenk described how Lincoln, like many sensitive critical thinkers, had a tendency to become deeply depressed, including two periods where Lincoln’s friends felt compelled to have “suicide watches” over him. Lincoln developed several antidotes, one of the most important being humor. Shenk concluded, “Humor gave Lincoln protection from his mental storms. It distracted him and gave him relief and pleasure…. Humor also gave Lincoln a way to connect with people.” Lincoln also combated his despair by finding meaning for his life.

Many other people have discovered how finding meaning can be a powerful antidote to despair and immobilization. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1959) describes a harrowing tale of his survival in Nazi concentration camps. He states that in the concentration camps, “The thought of suicide was entertained by nearly everyone…. A very strict camp ruling forbade any efforts to save a man who attempted suicide…. Therefore, it was all important to prevent these attempts from occurring.” Frankl talks about the help that he provided for two men who seriously talked about suicide. He said, “In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them.”

Even when conditions make it impossible for immediate change, great morale builders can inspire people to keep trying. Rabbi Tarfon, for example, during the era of the Roman Empire saw the big picture and reminded his people, “It was not granted you to complete the task and yet you may not give it up.”

Mental health professionals’ focus on symptoms and feelings often create patients who take themselves and their moods far too seriously. In contrast, those talented in the craft of maintaining morale help others to resist this kind of self-absorption. In the question and answer period that followed a Noam Chomsky talk (reported in Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, 2002), a somewhat demoralized person in the audience asked Chomsky if he too ever went through a phase of hopelessness. Chomsky responded, “Yeah, every evening…. If you want to feel hopeless, there are a lot of things you could feel hopeless about. If you want to sort of work out objectively what’s the chance that the human species will survive for another century, probably not very high. But I mean, what’s the point?…. First of all, those predictions don’t mean anything—they’re more just a reflection of your mood or your personality than anything else. And if you act on that assumption, then you’re guaranteeing that’ll happen. If you act on the assumption that things can change, well, maybe they will. Okay, the only rational choice, given those alternatives, is to forget pessimism.”

A major component of the craft of maintaining morale is not taking the advertised reality too seriously. In the early 1960s, when the vast majority in the U.S. supported military intervention in Vietnam, Chomsky was one of the few U.S. citizens actively opposing it. Looking back at this era, Chomsky reflected, “When I got involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, it seemed to me impossible that [we] would ever have any effect…. So looking back, I think my evaluation of the ‘hope’ was much too pessimistic: it was based on a complete misunderstanding. I was sort of believing what I read.”

Immobilized people are often so controlled by painful demons that they act compulsively and destructively to flee their pain and one such demon is shame. People can let go of shame when healing conditions are present, but mental health professionals are not routinely selected to provide these conditions. Furthermore, healing conditions such as compassion, acceptance, kindness, gentleness, and love are certainly not objective or quantifiable and not scientifically measurable; and many mental health academics are more comfortable with observable and measurable techniques, and thus may completely ignore the craft of healing.

An elitist assumption is that people don’t change because they are either ignorant of their problems or ignorant of solutions. Elitist “helpers” think they have done something useful by informing overweight people that they are obese and that they must reduce their caloric intake and increase exercise. An elitist who has never been broken by his or her circumstances does not know that people who have become demoralized do not need analyses, pontifications, and the prevailing psychology. Rather the immobilized need morale, healing, and a liberating psychology.

Bruce E. Levine is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007).

Bruce Levine has shared several of his articles on this Beyond Meds:

Listen to him speak here: Opposing the dominant paradigm in mental health and promoting holistic, person-centered alternatives

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